1 After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the Centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the Centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ”Go,” and he goes; and to another, ”Come,” and he comes; and to my servant, ”Do this,” and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.Luke 7:1-10, ESV
How not to pray.
Picture this. The Son of God, the One who created all things and holds all things together (Col 1:17), is now walking down Capernaum’s streets. His heart is set upon redeeming Jews and Gentiles alike (Rom 1:16). One day, he will sit upon His throne in glory surrounded by people from every tongue, every tribe, and every nation (Rev 7:9-17). Jesus is that man, unassuming in appearance (Isa 53:2), who they are pleading with to help a Gentile. Doesn’t this strike you as odd? It seems incredibly strange because they seem to be acting as if this Gentile needs to be advocated for by the orthodox Jews. Why would they imagine Jesus to be opposed to helping a Gentile? To make my point more crudely, why do they suppose that Jesus is bigoted against Gentiles?
Seemingly, the most obvious reason they assume Jesus to be racist is that they are racist. These Jewish men were projecting their bigoted views upon Jesus. You might ask, “if they are so racist, then why are they asking Jesus to help that Gentile?” Fair question. Reread the text and ask yourself why did they love this Gentile? I think you will find that their acceptance of this particular man was bought and paid for. They had received so much good from this wealthy Roman that they wished that Jesus might grant his request. They didn’t want Jesus to offend him. What if Jesus was to offend their favorite Roman? They might lose future gifts. I know, this sounds very cynical. Yet, as you read through the New Testament epistles, the Apostle Paul seems to be continually telling Jews and Gentiles to be unified in Christ.
The Gentiles were not historically ostracising the Jews. The early Christian Gentiles were thrilled to hear that they have been grafted into (Rom 11:17) the commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2:12). Historically, the Jews had a much harder time accepting Gentiles into their fellowship. Paul warned churches over and over about the dangers of Judaisers. Who were Judaisers? They were Christian Jews who mistakenly thought that for Gentile Christians to be real Christians, they would need to keep the mosaic law as an orthodox Jew (Acts 15:1), be circumcised, observe dietary laws, and live as a Jew (Gal 2:14). The Judaisers may have had theological reasons for this, but the problem was not merely theological. The first-century Jews were commonly known to have viewed all Gentiles as dogs.
That first-century bigotry might make people feel uncomfortable, but it’s inescapable history. Is discrimination acceptable and racism permissible? No. Jesus isn’t the Saviour of Jews only, but Jews and Gentiles alike. The purpose of shining light onto this human darkness is to point out the absurdity of those men to assume that Jesus was a bigot and therefore needed to be persuaded into helping a Roman centurion. The relevance for us is that we should beware of the natural tendency to project our own sins and inconsistencies onto God as we pray. For example, if we imagine ‘God would never save them,’ we have projected onto God. We think God wouldn’t do X because if we were God, we wouldn’t do X either. Be careful, Christian, don’t accidentally assume God is like we are. He is not. We are inherently unrighteous. God is righteous. He is entirely just, and we are altogether inconsistent judges.
Those Orthodox Jews did a good thing in advocating for their Roman friend, but the way that they advocated was wrong. Jesus is not less kind than we are. Jesus is not less gracious than we are. Jesus is not less interested in the sorrows of men than we are. No Christian. Jesus is more interested in suffering, more gracious, and kinder than we could ever wish to be.
Anthropology, in theological terms, is the study of man as God’s creature. The men that came to Jesus to vouchsafe for the Centurion have a skewed view of mankind. How do I mean? They view that particular Roman as being worthy of Jesus’ favor. Their working assumption is not that all Romans are worthy of Jesus’ favor, but this one is worthy, in their view, on the basis of his merits. Why is this perspective defective? Let me restate the working assumption. Those orthodox Jews’ anthropology was not that all men everywhere are worthy of divine favor, but some men can become worthy through their own good deeds. Again, they assume that man has the ability to merit their own worth before the Lord. Is this your anthropology?
The Apostle Paul, writing in the book of Romans, is likely the clearest teacher for a Christian perspective on anthropology. Paul begins to describe mankind in his first chapter as being suppressors of truth, idolaters, immoral, unthankful, and apart from the grace of God, we are hopelessly self-destructive. As he continues into the second chapter, he will not allow religious people to assume that this is only true of the irreligious. Paul will not permit the orthodox believer to categorize himself differently from the pagan because man’s problem is deeper than his religious confession or lack thereof. The Holy Spirit’s exposition of anthropology, found in Romans, can be summarized as all men everywhere are natural born sinners who love evil. They all are opposed to God, unrighteous, hateful, angry, violent, and altogether incapable of meriting God’s favor. Therefore, men require the grace of God to deliver them from the deserved wrath of God.
The problem I am highlighting is the idea of a man being worthy of God’s favor. No man or woman is worthy of God’s grace. If grace could be merited, then that word “grace” would be emptied of its entire meaning and could no longer communicate what God’s grace is (Rom 11:6). That Roman was a good man by any of our standards, but to suggest he is worthy of God’s favor is absurd. He needed God’s grace, but to suggest that Jesus was obligated to provide grace based on that Centurion’s good deeds is preposterous.
The Centurion seems to understand far more than the Jewish elders did about the subject of divine authority. While the Jewish elders said, “He is worthy”, the Centurion told Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you.” Isn’t it ironic? He had wonderful faith. He believed. He understood his position before God was one of unworthiness. He didn’t send ambassadors to try and persuade Jesus to overlook some bigotry. No. He knew Jesus was gracious, but he viewed himself as an unworthy person to approach this Holy man named Jesus. His anthropology informed his faith. He knew that he could offer nothing but that Jesus could merely speak the words of healing, and the act would be accomplished. The irony is incredible. Jesus highlights the paradox with the positive affirmation, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Christian, holding to the anthropology described in scripture, might seem on the front end to be self-abasing. However, on the back end, it proves to be the hallway toward divine grace. The reason we crave God’s grace is based upon our perceived need. If I think of myself too highly, I will assume I have something to offer or something that I must accomplish. If I think of myself as a hopeless sinner without any ability to deliver myself, I will be forced to cast myself upon the mercy of God. Oh, dear brother and sister. Cast yourself upon His mercy, and you shall never be forsaken.